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Reasons of Conscience

The Bioethics Debate in Germany

The implicit questions that inevitably underlie German bioethics are the same ones that have pervaded all of German public life for decades: How could the Holocaust have happened? And how can Germans make sure that it will never happen again? In Reasons of Conscience, Stefan Sperling considers the bioethical debates surrounding embryonic stem cell research in Germany at the turn of the twenty-first century, highlighting how the country’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with its past informs the decisions it makes today.
Sperling brings the reader unmatched access to the offices of the German parliament to convey the role that morality and ethics play in contemporary Germany. He describes the separate and interactive workings of the two bodies assigned to shape German bioethics—the parliamentary Enquiry Commission on Law and Ethics in Modern Medicine and the executive branch’s National Ethics Council—tracing each institution’s genesis, projected image, and operations, and revealing that the content of bioethics cannot be separated from the workings of these institutions. Sperling then focuses his discussion around three core categories—transparency, conscience, and Germany itself—arguing that without fully considering these, we fail to understand German bioethics. He concludes with an assessment of German legislators and regulators’ attempts to incorporate criteria of ethical research into the German Stem Cell Law.

344 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013

History: European History


"Reasons of Conscience: The Bioethics Debate in Germany provides an extraordinary example of anthropology’s capacity to not only document and critique social worlds but also to open up a space for political and philosophical mediations."

Petra Rethmann | American Ethnologist

“Stefan Sperling’s Reasons of Conscience is a highly illuminating account of the current state of consciousness about conscience in post-unification Germany. Concerned with the ethical relations between science and society, the book takes up an eclectic mix of evidence, including legal theories, concepts, metaphors, architectural design, the use of history and historiography, personal impressions, and public accounts of the prosecution of East German border guards and of debates about mandatory counseling for abortions. At its center is the work of a federal commission concerned with bioethics, specifically the regulation of embryonic stem cells. In distilling the specific way in which ethics gets defined in a democratic public sphere that prizes participation and transparency, it offers a fascinating journey through the reasoning about conscience in contemporary Germany.”

John Borneman, Princeton University

Reasons of Conscience is a dazzling study of the intersection of science, political life, and historical memory in modern Germany. It traces the public debate surrounding the legal, moral, and ethical ramifications of stem cell research in a country acutely sensitized to avoiding the repetition of the industrialization and eugenic manipulation of life in its past. Stefan Sperling explores in stunning ethnographic detail how German political life interweaves matters of ethics, citizenship, and conscience, from the everyday practices and knowledge of ethics commissions, scientific research, and citizen conferences, to the complexities of public and parliamentary debate. Without a doubt, this is the finest ethnography of German political life and of the inner workings of the German state that I have read—it is brilliantly attentive both to the cultural and historical legacies that shape German politics as well as to the Realpolitik and complex alliances of its parliamentary statecraft.”

Dominic Boyer, Rice University

Table of Contents

Building, Bildung
The Visible Public Sphere
Creating Readers
Normativity—Look It Up!
Grappling with Bioethics

1  A Tale of Two Commissions
Two Ethical Visions
Building an Ethical Imperative—The Ethics Lag
Veilings and Unveilings
New Kanzler, New Kanzleramt
Parliamentary Ethics—The Enquete Kommission
New Ethics—The Nationaler Ethikrat
Looking Back—The Enquete Kommission in History
Looking Around—The EK and the NER
Can the Nationaler Ethikrat Be Ethical?
Ethics Commissions as Saalordner
“This Is Not Bioethics”—“Bioethics Is a Dirty Word”
The Bundestag Comes to Life—Sternstunde des Parlaments

2 Disciplining Disorder
Learning to See the Right Things
Becoming an Ethical Insider
The First Day
Ethics Made Transparent
First Impressions
A Place for Disability
Du und Sie
—More Ways of Creating Insider-ness
Writing Bioethics
Grammar of Democracy
“What Are the Ethical Aspects of Organ Transplantation?”
Translation—The Semi-Legitimate Outsider Attempts to Produce a Legitimate Text
Glossary—Marking Science, Unmarking Law
The Beginning of Life
Conflict of Objectivities
Paper Wars
A Visit to the Media
The Nationaler Ethikrat Goes Public
Karlsruhe—Merging Law and Art
The Last Day of the Commission
Rules, and Rules on Following Rules
Leaving the Field—An Outsider Again

3 Transparent Fictions
Toward an Ethnography of Transparency
Transparency Today
Crafting Citizens through Bildung
Democracy Made Transparent at the German Hygiene Museum
Place—A Pedagogical Training Ground
Participants—Who Are the Citizens?
Process—Education in Citizenship
The Citizens Speak, but Have Not Heard Clearly
Expert Reactions

4 Conscientious Objections
Constitutions of Glass—Transparent, or Merely Fragile?
Constituting Conscience
Kant’s Conscience
Native Theories of Conscience—Kant as Germany’s Moral Gold Standard
Public and Private Reason
Beamte—Delegated Conscience Then and Now
Tortured Conscience
Conscience and Resistance
Conscientious Objectors
Conscientious Abortions
Constraints on Conscience
5 A Failed Experiment
Abwicklung und Aufarbeitung
One Volk, One History?—Writing History Together
Making East Germany Transparent—And Seeing an Unrechtsstaat
Obsessive Transparency
Transparency on Display—The Stasi in Museums
Learning to See Themselves as Victims
How German Was It?
Mauerschützen—Suspending the Rechtsstaat/Erasing East German Conscience
East Germany in the Enquete Kommission Recht und Ethik
Bioethics and the East German Public Sphere
Coda—A Very Private Place

6 Stem Cells, Interrupted
Ethical Imports at Last
“No Embryo Shall Die for German Research”
Ethics Becomes Law
Converting Ethics into Reason
Reading the Law
The Cutoff Date—An Unenforceable Line
Prohibited yet Permitted
Ethical German Research
The ZES and the RKI Reconfigure Science and Ethics
Inside the ZES
Jürgen Hescheler
Wolfgang Franz

Reading Borges, Reading Germany
Transparency—Text and Context
Potentialities—Setting Limits as an Ethical Act
Law and Memory—Recht und Unrecht

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